The last bastion of music industry consumerism rolled through the Fiserv Forum on Tuesday night for the first of three consecutive nights of massive concerts at the new arena. Metallica hasn’t released a really good album in well over two decades, but the band is impervious to critical opinion and changing musical trends. Every one of the band’s album since the ’90s has debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, and after kicking off the current leg of the WorldWired Tour in Madison just last month, this Fiserv Forum show sold out easily as well. How do they do it?
It’s a formula so obvious and simple, so well-suited to please both the band members and fans from casual to diehard, that it’s baffling how few musical projects have adopted it. It does require a modicum of effort, however, which most acts as old and rich as Metallica abandon in favor of identical greatest-hits shows night after night. Say what you might about their music, but these aging headbangers give a shit about their fans.
The first requirement, sadly, is to keep releasing new music and playing it at your shows. Blind faith in your own creativity, no matter how irrelevant its fruits, will always keep you more engaged in your career, and that bleeds through into your performances. Having wisely abandoned the alt-rock makeover of the mid-’90s Load albums, most of Metallica’s recent output at least mimics their classic thrash period. “Atlas Rise” came off as a complex and engaging early-set effort, and “Now That We’re Dead” was at least not a ballad. A surprising majority of fans at the Fiserv shouted along to every word of these Tuesday.
The second rule is to keep surprising your audience, and Metallica does a better job of this than most legacy acts. On any given night, they’re liable to dust off just about any old rarity or cover from their extensive repertoire. For example, “Harvester Of Sorrow” thrilled old-school fans, but maybe not as much as “Motorbreath,” a darkhorse from the band’s first album. While singer James Hetfield doesn’t sound at all like he did in 1983, his vocals improve dramatically when they’re a little washed out in an echoing chorus of tens of thousands.
Very important: Play a lot of simple, plodding rhythms, leaving space for your fans to chant words like “HEY” and “YEAH” and “duh-DUH” or whatever is called for. Drunk people love nothing more than to feel like their own exuberance might be the tipping point from ordinary to epic. More crucially, the communal energy involved in these whole-room, full-throated shouts can be volcanic. “Do you feel alive?” Hetfield barked during a pause between songs—it was not so much rhetoric as a plea: Whatever may be plaguing you outside of this shed, let tonight be a temporary release. Metallica fans vigorously enforce this oneness. At one point, an attendee got chewed out by some of their heavy metal brethren for sitting quietly during “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” one of very few people who sat down at any point during the show.
Optional: Have one formative member of the band who…can’t quite keep up. Yes, you could hire some replacement millennial who could play “One” in their sleep. You could augment your sound with some unseen sorcery underneath the stage. You could abandon certain key songs because when you wrote them, you never dreamed you’d require such agility at age 54. Or, you could embrace the endearing qualities that only one guy embodies, and you can make the most of the time you have with him, and trust your audience to be as forgiving as you.
Oh, and if possible: Have a whole bunch of timeless songs in your back pocket. Songs that mainstream rock radio has played to death. That even your fans can’t stand to listen to any more, except on these occasions. Maybe you’ve successfully turned them off commercial FM radio entirely, just so they can congregate with you every few years and still enjoy “Enter Sandman.” You’ve become the U2 of metal. The dudes of Metallica embrace every second of it with obvious gratitude, and if you’ve got any doubts in your head about whether or not you need to cross them off your bucket list, you’d best get on it, while Lars can still wield a pair of sticks.